The huge Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba is set to offer its stock to the public for the first time later this week, an action that may raise more than $20 billion for the company.  This Initial Public Offering may turn out to be the largest ever.  

Alibaba handles around 80 percent of on-line commerce by China's more than 600 million Internet users.
Headed by Jack Ma, (NAT SOT) the firm profits from transaction fees, and payments from advertisers who want to reach its  rapidly-growing throngs of customers.  Alibaba also has a payment system that can replace credit cards for some purchases.   

The head of a company that sells business information to firms doing business around the world, says Alibaba is set to grow more and even faster.  Panjiva's Josh Green spoke via Skype.

"As you look at the next 10-20 years, there is no question that we are going to see the rise of a really powerful, really vibrant middle class in China.  And there is no company that is better positioned to benefit from that rise of the Chinese middle class than Alibaba," said Green.

Alibaba's Jack Ma could use the money raised by the IPO to reward people who backed the firm in its early days and to expand operations.  

Alibaba can continue to expand in China, and has made overseas investments that could aid international expansion.  But a new poll by Reuters and Ipsos shows most Americans have never heard of Alibaba.  Green says growing globally means Alibaba would have to build the kind of connections, brand recognition, and trust that have helped the firm in China.

Experts say Alibaba has a corporate structure that gives shareholders less influence over the firm than is normal in a publicly held company.

A University of Michigan business professor says investors will need to exercise the same caution with this company as they would with any investment in an emerging market like China.

Puneet Manchanda spoke via Skype.

"It’s a very convoluted financial transaction, you are buying shares in an entity that is registered in the Cayman Islands, and exactly how this will filter through in terms of transparency and in terms of investors having a say in what the company is doing is not very clear," said Manchanda.

Alibaba's top executives have met with major investors around the world to make a case for their company.

That may be why concerns about the firm are not hurting demand for Alibaba shares before they formally go on sale.  Reports in the financial press say so many investors want to own part of this company that managers of the IPO are raising the price.